how to get to heaven

The world we live in
is none other than the realm of Buddha.
Here it is forever Spring,
flowers bloom without end,
and the fragrant path is ever open.
 – A Thousand Hands of Compassion

As a teenager, to the bewilderment of my family, I became a Christian. My memories of that period are of long summers, walking across the gorgeous East Anglian countryside totally in love with the trees and fields and birds and insects, praising God in everything I saw.  I’d walk from church to church across farmland and along country lanes, and never left the divine presence.

A couple of decades later my interest in things spiritual re-awoke and, living in Thailand, I looked to Buddhism. I loved the temples and Buddha images and the devotion of the Thai people, but recoiled from teachings that denied the beauty of this world. To this day I disagree with the Four Noble Truths, I don’t see life as only suffering and I don’t want to eliminate love for life.

I remember going to hear a Therevada monk give a talk on developing dispassion in which he used a day trip to see a waterfall as an example of the human condition. After traveling up into the mountains, everyone looks at the waterfall for a few minutes and then, seconds later, they’re eating their sandwiches – ready for the next distraction. So, what use waterfalls?

It’s only recently I’ve seen how Buddhism truly encompasses a love of, and even gratitude for, this very world we live in. I saw it first in the sheer attention to beauty in most Korean temples. But then I saw how that lovely balance of building, stream, woods and mountains didn’t come about by accident, how it was a manifestation of a core teaching I’d overlooked.

Yet I have trouble seeing this world as the Pure Land. After all, that’s where I’ll be taken by Amida Buddha and the Bodhisattvas after death. This world, with its violence and cruelty, is far from pure. Even in its pristine state, creatures live and die by eating each other. Illness, old age and death touch us all. The Buddha wanted to transcend this, the Therevadans and Pure Landers are both right – our task is to just get out.

And yet, doesn’t the idea that this very realm is no other than the Buddha-realm accord with my earliest, and possibly deepest, spiritual experiences as I communed with all the creative energy and beauty of the world? Doesn’t the teaching that we are all connected through this power-source of Buddha-nature accord exactly with my impulse for appreciation and gratitude?

I take refuge in one mind,
remaining just as it is, it ceaselessly takes care of all things.
I take refuge in one mind,
with all-embracing harmony it saves all beings everywhere.
I take refuge in one mind, which completely looks after all beings throughout the world and universe.
I take refuge in one mind,
with a single thought transcending time and space, it nurtures all.
I take refuge in one mind, endlessly giving light to all.
 – The Thousand Hands of Compassion

Thinking back, looking up at those huge East Anglian skies and resting in the all-encompassing arms of God didn’t mean that all my pain went away, it did mean I had, in some small way, transcended it, even transformed it. And it happened not through practice or meditation, not through Buddhology or Theology, but through resting and appreciating and letting go.

You only need to breathe lightly
for the miracles to be displayed.
Suddenly you hear the birds singing,
the pines chanting;
you see flowers blooming,
the blue sky,
the white clouds,
the smile and the marvelous look
of your beloved.
 – From ‘Our True Heritage’, a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh

And now I think of it, that monk I heard in Thailand those years ago had a point. What use waterfalls if you then simply head for the sandwiches? But if you bring to the waterfall your time and peace and appreciation, if you are in touch with that part of yourself that is deep and still and peaceful, then, yes, life also is deep and still and peaceful and we can taste the Pure Land.

So, for me, the Pure Land remains a destination after I die and I make no apologies for my faith, but what I have learnt from masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Daehaeng Sunim, is how to spend more time in the Pure Land whilst in this realm now. Something that accords with my experience and makes sense to me. Pain and suffering doesn’t go away, but it can be seen for what it is, a necessary part of being alive. And being alive is wonderful.

24 thoughts on “how to get to heaven”

  1. I have also struggled with seeing this world as the Pure Land. Then, one day it occured to me, this world is the realm of Shakyamuni, the one who attained anuttara samyaksambodhi during the period of the 5 decays. That’s why the world is the way it is.

    That’s not to say that the Pure Land of Amitabha doesn’t exist here too.

    I love the picture of Mary and the Bodhisattvas.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Seijo, I think you and me are thinking along much the same lines, thank you so much for your comments.

      Of course I guess it takes the full eyes of Enlightenment before you can really see this suffering world as the Pure Land, but isn’t it true, that the closer you feel to your source, to your Buddha-nature, the more pure this world is, even with all its samsaric aspects?

      And even those are there, we know – and can experience – to teach us and propell us along the path of awakening.

      But yes, that’s not to deny the Pure Land as a real existing place to go in other realm after death, as well as a way of seeing ourselves orientated in this world. Thank you _/\_

      PS – all credit for the amazing photos to Chong Go Sunim! Thank you Sunim! _/\_

  2. Thank for a thoughtful and intriguing post…
    I remember our discussions on the Four Noble Truths back in Korea.

    Something I’ve been learning is that any definitives eventually breakdown of you look into them deeply enough. The Four Noble Truths as well…
    I also disagree that “Life IS suffering” but I can say that in life THERE is suffering.

    At the same time, I’m not really sure how often I can say that I’m truly free of suffering…

    And is that Mary standing with the Bodhisattvas??
    That’s a really interesting image!

    1. “Something I’ve been learning is that any definitives eventually breakdown of you look into them deeply enough. The Four Noble Truths as well…”

      Indeed!

      “Nor is there pain
      or cause of pain or cease in pain
      or noble path to lead from pain,
      Not even wisdom to attain,
      attainment too is emptiness.”

      I remember talking about the problem of the 4NTs with Phra Pandit here in Bangkok, and him saying that the best way to see them is not linear at all. Better to see them as four truths in no particular order each reflecting the other. I like that.

      And, more and more, I find that just dropping the debates and the philosophy is best of all! I could gather my set of quotes and authorities and someomne else could gather theirs, and we could argue all month – but none of it really cuts the mustard, it’s our practice that matters.

      And that is something about which I have so much to learn from you mate. Thank you. And thank you for your great comments.

      _/\_

    1. I saw once a film (about nature, the real video) how the tiger felt for baby deer, she did not kill it as would be usual for these animals, but she took it gently and tried to keep it warm at night, and protected from other animals, the baby deer died without his mother’s milk, but the tigeress tried to help, and held it gently close to her as if her own pup. It was amasing footage.

  3. When you said you disagreed with the 4 Noble Truths I wanted to argue with you – in a pleasant way as we are wont. Then I read the rest of your post and it read similar to my understanding of the 4 Noble Truths where “there is suffering” – as opposed to life is suffering. And then I read Joseph’s comment and saw that I am completely wasting my time – but wrote anyway.

    I read one time that Ajaan Sumedho said that he only studied the one teaching – 4NT. I also believe that the 4NT is significant in that it was a teaching unique to the Buddha ie it was a teaching that was not given out prior to the night of His enlightenment. But I have no idea where I got that from. There can be suffering, caused by craving released by non-attachment following the 8-fold Path. Does this not fit within the devotion of Amithaba Buddha?

    Another coincidence – I spent most of my adolescence walking of an evening. Sadly it was the streets of sale rather than the beauty of East Anglia.

    1. Hi BillZ,

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting! Much appreciated mate!

      When you said you disagreed with the 4 Noble Truths I wanted to argue with you…

      Uh oh, here comes the Buddhist Inquisition! Only kidding! I know only too well that impulse!

      There can be suffering, caused by craving released by non-attachment following the 8-fold Path. Does this not fit within the devotion of Amithaba Buddha?

      My disagreement with the 4NTs would take more than just a few paragraphs to explain I’m afraid – and so I won’t even try. If you’re really dead keen to find out more , I strongly recommend a book called “The Feeling Buddha” by David Brazier.

      But yes, no matter what your take on the 4NTs, they definitely do fit with a devotion to Amida Buddha. Again, not saying that they definitely lead to that path for all people, but only for those karmically inclined.

      Another coincidence – I spent most of my adolescence walking of an evening.

      Another co-incidence! It really is amazing how much we both have in common in our backgrounds and paths!

      Sadly it was the streets of sale rather than the beauty of East Anglia.

      Ah, well, I’ll readily admit to a very fortunate childhood there!

      Thanks again BillZ, and see you at the TNH talk next month!

      _/\_

  4. I have always been amazed in those Buddhist who believe and long to be carried away to the Pure Land. It is such a Christian attitude, albeit more inclusive. I understand it, but I am always curious why some are drawn to this and others not. The heavenly afterlife mentality does seem to be the default of the human mind — though I think it is an illusion.

    I agree that viewing all as suffering is a huge mistake. But then, from my reading, many Buddhist sects do not take this as the meaning of the first nobel truth. Finding pleasure here and now and bringing the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land to our present is important (no matter what metaphor you use).

    1. Hello Sabio Lantz,

      A perfect place for cultivating Buddhahood, sounds nice to me!! 🙂

      Although I don’t spend much time thinking about the Pure Land, I had a similar reaction to yours when I first heard of it. I have contemplated its existence a little, and the way I see it is, if all is created by the mind, then having true faith and belief that you will go to the Pure Land, or Heaven, or maybe even Hell, just might send you there.

      And, as Marcus just might add, it doesn’t have to be explained or, perhaps, even understood, just believed.

      I’m curious, what do others think?

      1. For me Joseph, the Pure Land is not so much a belief but a meditation that I practice. The Dhyana Sutra explains it in perfect detail. The result of practicing such as visualization is entry into the Pure land of Amitabha Buddha.

      2. “I have contemplated its existence a little, and the way I see it is, if all is created by the mind, then having true faith and belief that you will go to the Pure Land, or Heaven, or maybe even Hell, just might send you there.”

        Well, I certainly don’t think any Zen Masters will disagree with you there! Daehaeng Sunim talks about how after death a person goes to the level at which they are most comfortable, with the idea of practice being to raise that level.

        In a sense each time we go up a notch as it were, we’re reaching a higher pure land. I mean, even the Pure Land itself has different divisions within it depending on level of practice or faith (depending on exact tradition).

        The Sunim here once said that we’re all headed for the Pure Land eventually anyways – if there is a disagreement it’s only regarding how many lifetimes it will take!

        But, yes, the beauty of practice as I see it is that ability to touch the Pure Land here and now – and that’s where Daehaeng Sunim, with her emphasis on our shared Buddha-nature as a creative core to one’s life, is so wonderful.

        (“And, as Marcus just might add, it doesn’t have to be explained or, perhaps, even understood, just believed.” – indeed yes!!)

    2. “I have always been amazed in those Buddhist who believe and long to be carried away to the Pure Land.”

      Hi Sabio, I don’t know how much time you might have spent in Asia, but it’s certainly the case that devotional Buddhism is by far the norm in most Asian countries both now and throughout history.

      I live in Thailand and every Thai Buddhist I know here goes to the temple. Most of them (all?) go there in order to secure a better rebirth, or an answer to a prayer. Few, if any, could name the 4NTs.

      But rather than see this as a problem, I see the wonderful fruits of a devotional approach! However, I agree, working on your practice is better still!

      As for the meaning of the 1stNT, take a look at what Tanya says below: “Existance is suffering, denying this is like denying a thorn that is stuck in your foot,…” It’s a common and legitimate position to take!

      ” …bringing the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land to our present is important (no matter what metaphor you use).”

      I quite agree! Thank you Sabio!

      _/\_

      1. Oh, but just to add something – my problem with the 4NT is not so much with the 1st, as with the relationship between the 2nd and the 1st. But that’s a whole other story!

  5. the world you see and experience – is your own mind, it is not that there is a world and you are in it, it is your mind that is unfolding before your eyes, so Pure Land is existing always within you anyway, it is not really seen at the moment of this life or maybe seen only very briefly, because the mind has impurities, something like a gold gets covered with crust, but the purity of your essence is absolutely there, the foundation of you and your existance is based on that deathless purity and light that is beyond even any concept. This undescribable essence is hard to find, because it is within you and mind has a tendency to look outward (like your eyes don’t see your face (only in reflection)) looking outward and focusing narrowly creates illusion of separate self and thus birth and death, which are in essence is illusion, however experienced as solid, the thought can become solid; look how Earth floats in Space, how galaxies form, how the known to us Universe unfolds – it is all connected, it is not separate from human mind and mind is so vast it is hard to believe.
    In Cristianity they say “father and son” in Tibetan Buddhism they say “mother and child” – this means your present mind meets its foundation, and it is not separate.
    Existance is suffering, denying this is like denying a thorn that is stuck in your foot, but existance has to be seen as not like life opposite of non-life, existance is separateness from the core and the essence, this separation is the worst hell, separation from this pure essence, which is everything good and unlimited love, creates all sorts of suffering. Religion, believes, traditions and so on – it is made things, but the truth is one, it stays the same regardless of thoughts and opinions. Being alive or not being alive – mind does not stop to experience things, it is just having physical body is very helpful in developing mind, so it get changed over and over untill the final destination, which is everyone’s potential; without any practice at all it can take billions of years and countless rounds of rebirths and suffering (heavenly existence also can end up in suffering), with practice it is much, much faster; and if the knowledge and belief in your own foundation exists in the mind then it is like taking a ride on a flow of fast current. So this foundation, the essence and origin of all is experienced directly.

  6. there is a book, in Korean though, called “existance is not suffering” – it is part of the teaching of Daehaeng KunSunim. existance is not suffering because it is an opportunity to develope and grow up to full potential. However to truly see that existance is not suffering, it is necessary to first see clearly that existance is suffering and denying that suffering is like going against empirical evidence. Argueing is useless, because after death comes – there is nobody to argue, but the mind will be in that same argumental state, it is better to learn something useful and share and learn from each other and from those who know something, like Buddha and enlightented teachers, disagreeing with Buddha and putting your own arguments about four noble truths and other things – it is meaningless, it is like whatever, you are going experience whatever you are going to experience and nobody will be there to argue or even help. Recently I saw a woman standing right on the road with a big sign “Jesus is only way to heaven” I was so compelled to stop and say – then go there, don’t bother others, but I drove by, like – whatever; People pray and beg to their supreme being, but what the Buddha was teaching is not to do that, but to find the treasure within yourself, Jesus also said that, but people beg and pray and misunderstand the meaning, Sufi teaching also is much overlooked, and what does it matter the quotes of others, how about your own view that you see. Being stubborn and stongheaded in views – is not permanent too, like sometimes people change religions, sometimes they become crazily into religion, but all of this is -“whatever” – it is not permanent, being so sure that you are going to be whisked away to some Pure Land or Heaven does not garantee it is going to happen – so it is better to carefully investigate things while alive and just find that treasure within, so you can see things for yourself and not indulge in theories.

    1. Thank you for your valuable comments Tanya. I hardly know where to start in responding to everything you say, so will just leave it at some thanks. Thank you. _/\_

  7. Hi Marcus. Lovely, touching post (and wonderful photographic imagery to go along with it).

    I too, had problems struggling with the “life is suffering” take on the 1st noble truth. My love for my son is suffering? Really? Didn’t make any sense to me, but I went with it (skeptically, but I went with it because the 2ndNT was very, very powerful for me).

    This is only my humble opinion as a novice, but I believe that suffering is a poor translation for dukkha. If you study at accesstoinsight at all, you know that in place of “suffering” they use “stress”. I think this points closer, but for me it still misses the mark.

    For me, it’s easier to to think on something like “When life is unsatisfactory, it is because i am ignorant to my pure mind, my Buddha nature (or I suppose you could insert Pure Land here, I don’t have that much experience with it).”

    Anyway, you aren’t the only one that struggles with this. We are all up this same tree.

    What also helps for me is to see smiles on the faces of people like Tich Nhat Hanh, who I’m guessing have a much more profound understanding of the 4NTs. So if all life is suffering, what are they smiling about?

    Cheers.

  8. Hi Adam,

    Thank you so much for your comments. I think, if you read through to the final paragraph of my post, we reach much the same conclusions! LOL!

    However, regarding the 4NTs…..

    I wish I’d left that single sentence regarding my problems with the 4NTs out of my post now! But, just to say again, my problem with the 4NTs is not so much the 1st, as the relationship between the 1st and the 2nd. Let me try to very very briefly explain…

    …in the Turning the Wheel of Dharma Sutta, the Buddha’s first post-Enlightenment discourse/teaching, he says clearly that the first Noble Truth (dukka) is the result of the second (desire, or feelings).

    The Buddha even gives the definition of Dukka in that central sutta. He says dukka is birth, illness, old age, contact with what we find unpleasant, separation from the pleasant etc etc. And all of this is the result, he says, of desire (the 2NT).

    My problem is that I just don’t see it (well, in one sense I do, possibly the biggest sense, – but I’ll come back to that later). I mean, how is it that my desires lead to illness? My bad back is a result of craving?

    The Buddha is NOT talking about the second arrow (the fear we overlay on top of pain) in this sutta. he goes to the trouble of defining dukka (illness etc) – and says it comes about through craving.

    I prefer the Brazier approach that says the 1NT comes first, and the second 2nd! Ie, pain (the inevitable pain of life) does actually come first and that the existence of pain, inevitable in everyone’s life, then gives rise to the stuff of the second.

    In response to pain we have cravings and desires and feelings (not just the other way around) and our task in life is to use the energy of that in the 8fold-path. Of course this then feeds back into the 1NT, but it is a non-standard approach. And yet it accords completely with my reading of the suttas and makes perfect common sense.

    However, in order to keep to the original formulation of 2NT leads to 1NT and make sense of how cravings lead to birth, the only answer is found in the twelve links of causation – mental formations, consciousness, the sense realms, sense phenomena, feelings, desire, clinging, and thus rebirth and another round of suffering, illness, old age and death.

    In this approach – the standard Buddhist theory accepted by most and well-expressed by Tanya above – our existence is indeed an awful error, based on ignorance. The cause of this ignorance we can never know. Removing it leads to self-annihilation. This is Buddhism – and it’s not a pretty picture…

    …until you start to define that annihilation (and here I get back to how I do see the standard approach working).

    If you see annihilation, going back into the void, as being the same as oneness with Buddha-nature, then – and again Tanya is spot on – no worries. This might not be existence as we know it, but it’s inexpressively wonderful.

    And with the teachings of zen that there is, in fact, no separation between form and void, the problem of self-annihilation and disdain for the world is resolved! But, of course, all this is difficult stuff – and that’s where, I think, the Pure Land steps in!

    So, to sum up, (1) the linear aproach to the 4NTs (as opposed to the physicians approach) makes greater sense to me as a better model to work with in our daily lives. (2) the traditional approach can indeed be said to be life-denying – depending on your view of the void. (3) However, if the void is Buddha-nature itself, then no problem! LOL! (4) and if form comes from the void (see the Heart Sutra!) then we are back at appreciation and wonder for this very life as a manifestation of that all-creative void! (Wake Up and Laugh!!!)

    Okay, most people by now would be of the opinion I’m a raving lunatic who ought to be securely confined – and they’d have a point – but, you know, none of this means a damned thing on the computer screen. Time to shut up – and practice!

    Cheers again Adam,

    Marcus _/\_

  9. Marcus,

    My Brother…

    Beautiful, honest sentiments you always conjure and convey. Thank you…especially for the honesty.

    You know, “Life is ‘suffering'” is just an acknowledement, I believe. You know, like when you were an activst, like me, and you had something to say, and some housewife or thoughtless business man would stick the proverbial nose in and say, “why cannot you say something positve?”, to which you probably said (or thought); ‘the positive takes care of itself!; we have to be concerned with the problems in order to find the solutions!’

    Or, to put it another way; when I was reading Bart Ehrman or Christopher Hitchens, or talking about Stephen Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus, someone special to me said, “way don’t you read books that indicate the truth in the bible?”. I said ‘The truths are self evident. And when they are not, we investigate. We don’t go to the doctor for compliments. We go to find out hat’s wrong. It’s irelevant whether or not he thinks our clothes are nice!

    The Buddha was saying: ‘Dudes, life, in a way, can suck, so, like, here’s what you can do to reduce the suckiness.’ That’s my take on it. He wasn’t saying life is ONLY suffering, was he? Though it is almost always interpreted that way.

    “So, for me, the Pure Land remains a destination after I die, and I make no apologies for my faith, but what I have learnt from masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Daehaeng Sunim, is how to spend more time in the Pure Land whilst in this realm now.”

    The above, which you said, is what I hve said for long time; the part about ‘how to spend more time in the Pure Land whilst in this realm now’, but I usually used that easoning in my arguments with people whom I thouht spent to much time caring about their soul in the afterlife than to what theirsupport of Geoge Bush was doing to people who we were raining bombs on.

    I wanted to (and did) say, “life is not a dress rehearsal”. his is it. Make it beautiful!

    Love, Pace, and Joy,

    Carl

  10. Hi Carl,

    Thanks so much for your comments, it’s very kind of you to take the time and trouble to share them. Much, much, appreciated mate.

    Like I say, my problem with the 1NT isn’t so much that all life is suffering (although, from the perspective of eliminating ignorance and therefore being itself, that IS actually what the Buddha taught) – my problem is how the 2NT is said to lead to the first – rather (and this is a difficult arguement) the other way round.

    But I prefer, at the end of the day, the idea expressed in the Prajna Paramita that all these teachings are in fact entirely empty of any real substance! We argue over nothing – literally! When what we ought to do is rest in that very emptiness we share!

    And thus are delivered to the Pure Land!

    All the very best Carl mate and great to have you active on the blog again! Thank you!

    Marcus _/\_

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